Skip to content Skip to navigation

The Prodigal Son

King, Martin Luther, Jr.
October 1, 1956 to October 31, 1956
Martin Luther King, Jr. - Career in Ministry


During October 1956, King began a series of sermons at Dexter on the parable of the prodigal son.1 He incorporates ideas gleaned from Buttrick and J. Wallace Hamilton in this handwritten outline.2

  1. This is probly the most familiar of all of the parables of Jesus. George Mury has said that this parable is “the most divinely tender and the most humanly touching story ever told on earth. This is no exaggration. No story more instantly touches the nerve of actual life. It is the story of a boy who churned his life into fleshly mess and is condemned by it and is finally saved.3

  2. Tell the story.4 As we look at the Prodical, let us look not as spectators. The Prodical is a faithful reflection of life everywhere, in every age.

  3. The one word that can describe all of this boys mistakes is the word “illusion”.
    He was the tragic victim of a threefold illusion
    What is an illusion. It is an imange in the mind's eye which has no corresponding existnce in reality.

    1. The first illusion is his mind was that pleasure is the end of life; that the satisfaction of the senses is the end of existence. This is an old illusion

      1. The Hedonist
      2. Epicurus
      3. Ecclesiates5
      4. Omar Khayyam

      {The moving Finger writes and Having writ, moves on
      Neither tears nor wit can cancel out a line of it!
      “A Book of verses underneath the Bough, A jug of wine, a loaf of Bread an Thou}6

      “The saddest people in the world,” wrote Winchell, “are those sitting in joints making believe they are having a good time.” This Broadway street [of fools?]7

    2. The second illusion was the feeling on the part of the prodical that he was independent; that he could live life happily outside his fathers house and his fathers will.

    3. He was a victim of the illusion that freedom is liscnce.

1. A report titled “Travels with the Pastor” in the 17 October 1956 Dexter Echo indicates that King delivered a series of sermons on the prodigal son. This outline may represent King's first sermon of the series.

2. Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus, pp. 189-194; Hamilton, Horns and Halos in Human Nature (Westwood, NJ.: Revell, 1954), pp. 25-34. King annotated a copy of Hamilton's book and kept it in his personal library. He also drew significantly from Hamilton in another sermon outline on this theme (Prodigal Son, Sermon outline, 1964-1968).

3. Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus, p. 189: “‘The most divinely tender and most humanly touching story ever told on our earth,’ says George Murray. The appraisal is not extravagant… No story more instantly touches the nerve of actual life… The boy who has churned his life into a fleshly mess is condemned by it, and saved.” For George Murray's words, see Murray, Jesus and His Parables (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1914), p. 163.

4. Luke 15:11-32. In Jesus's parable of the prodigal son, a son takes his share of his father's estate and squanders it on indulgent pleasures. He is still welcomed home after becoming destitute.

5. Hamilton paraphrased Ecclesiastes 2:4-11 in his analysis of the prodigal son, which King underlined in his copy of the sermon: “Away back in antiquity a man wrote it down and got it recorded in the Bible: ‘I tried it,’ he said. ‘I made a business of happiness. I worked hard at the game, surrounded myself with all the pleasures the senses could provide, withheld not my heart from any joy. Then one day I drew a line under it, added it up, and all I got was zero, nothing. All is vanity, a striving after the wind’” (Horns and Halos in Human Nature, p. 31).

6. King quotes from Khayyám's Rubáiyát 71 and 12 (pp. 50 and 31). Hamilton also cited these two verses to exemplify “the philosophy of the prodigal” (Horns and Halos in Human Nature, p. 29).

7. King probably refers to journalist Walter Winchell, whose syndicated gossip column “On Broadway” ran in newspapers from 1924 until 1963.


MLKJP-GAMK, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers (Series I-IV), Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc., Atlanta, Ga., Vault box 6, folder 10.